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Rising Sea Levels Threaten 233 Endangered Species

Climate

Sea-level rise driven by climate change poses a deadly threat to 233 federally protected animal and plant species in 23 coastal states, according to a new scientific report from the Center for Biological Diversity, and U.S. wildlife protection agencies are not doing enough to protect at-risk species.

In a letter to the two wildlife agencies, Center scientists pointed out that the federal government’s existing wildlife policies offer little useful guidance or strategies for protecting endangered species from sea-level rise. The letter urges officials to revamp species-protection plans to focus on the threat.

For the Deadly Waters report, Center scientists analyzed data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, as well as scientific literature. The Center found that 17 percent—one in six—of the nation’s threatened and endangered species are at risk from rising sea levels and storm surges. The report also details the specific danger to five of the species most threatened by sea-level rise.

“From Florida’s key deer to Hawaii’s monk seals, some of our most amazing creatures could be doomed as the oceans swallow up their last habitat and nesting sites,” said Dr. Shaye Wolf, the Center’s climate science director. “If we don’t move fast to cut carbon pollution and protect ecosystems, climate chaos could do tremendous damage to our web of life."

"Federal wildlife officials have to step up efforts to protect America’s endangered species from the deadly threat of rising seas," Wolf concluded.

The Center’s analysis follows a stark warning from the National Research Council, which recently released a report saying that global warming threatens to inflict rapid and catastrophic changes on some ecosystems and could cause a mass extinction of plants and animals.  

The U.S. is home to approximately 1,500 federally protected threatened and endangered species, many of which depend on coastal and island habitats for survival. As greenhouse gas pollution builds up in the atmosphere, rising oceans and increasingly dangerous storm surges will threaten already endangered animals that inhabit coastal wetlands, beaches and other vulnerable ecosystems.

Here are five of the most at-risk species:

Five of the Species Most Threatened by Sea-level Rise

Species at Risk

Current Population

Key Fact

1. Key deer

Approximately 800 deer

About 86 percent of islands occupied by Florida’s Key deer are less than 3 feet above sea level.

2. Loggerhead sea turtle

Approximately 17,000 females nesting each year in the United States

At Florida’s Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, 42 percent of loggerhead nesting beaches are expected to disappear with 1.5 feet of sea-level rise.

3. Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel

20,000 to 38,000 squirrels

Half of the fox squirrels’ habitat would be inundated by 6 feet of sea-level rise, which could occur in this century.

4. Western snowy plover

2,500 adults

A third of the West Coast beach habitat areas used by the plovers are less than 3 feet above sea level.

5. Hawaiian monk seal

About 1,000 seals

Sea-level rise poses a serious threat to monk seals’ pupping beaches; one key island has already disappeared.

The 23 states with endangered species threatened by sea-level rise are Alabama, Alaska, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

 Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE and BIODIVERSITY pages for more related news on this topic.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.